Friday, July 13, 2007

A trip to Anambra

I’ve spent the past few days in Anambra – my first trip to the ‘Light of the Nation.’ Day one is spent in a tedious all-day meeting with senior civil servants in the state. My attempts to avoid praying at the beginning of the meeting are futile – Jesus must be called to help the meeting be brought to a successful outcome. There are about ten ‘in the mighty name of Jesuses’ and three or four ‘journey mercies’ – haven’t heard that phrase in a while. Fortunately, the prayer only takes three or four minutes and then we are into the meeting.

As the meeting progressed, I am increasingly struck by the number of female permanent secretaries, both in the room and alluded to. This chimes with the women I have seen driving motorbikes in the few hours I have been here – riding solo and giving lifts – with bored expressions on their faces – demonstrating case after case of the entirely usual. It is the first time I’ve seen women riding bikes in Nigeria, and quite an arresting site. What does it say about gender relations, I wonder..

Towards the end of the day, I conclude that Anambra State has been battered and bruised by political turbulence for many years. Some of the agencies do not have proper accommodation; there is erratic (or as they say here, epileptic) power supply, let alone any thought of a wide-area-network etc. A director with a central role in budgeting does not understand the distinction between incremental and activity-based budgeting. Oh dear. There is work to do. That said, all the talk of the new Peter Obi administration is positive; however, Anambra has a long way to go to catch up with many other states in Nigeria..

Day two, we drive to Nnewi, to tour the well-known auto-parts market. My tour guide is the Local Government Chairwoman, Mrs Calista Adimachukwu. We meet the guy who runs the market, and tour both the motorcycle parts and car parts areas. The sun beats down. The market employs around 12,000 people, and rakes in billions of naira per year turnover. Even so, there is no electricity, no water and most of the roads in and around the market are in a piteous state. Given that a considerable sum of money must be collected in various rents and taxes, one can only conclude that there is quite massive corruption going on, blocking the development and upgrading of the facilities. Peter Obi’s challenge will be to break the racket, as he has done apparently in nearby Onitsa.

As we drive around afterwards, we pass by Idemili South Local Government area. I daydream of the spirit of Idemili (quite close to the Yoruba equivalent of Osun). I wonder where she is now. Does her spirit and energy still resonate?

Later in the afternoon, I persuade my host to drive us to Ogbunike cave - where Biafrans hid during the civil war. I have heard about the place as a possible tourist attraction in the state. We take the Onitsa road out of Awka. After a while, we pass by a small settlement called Abba. I wonder if this is the Abba of Chimamanda’s birth-place. If so, it is a tiny settlement from what I can see. A few minutes later, we get to Ogidi, on the outskirts of Onitsa. After a fifteen minute drive down a Martian road, we get to the top of a hill and road’s end. Three guys are lounging under the shade of a rickety bamboo shack. The initial ‘fee’ for visiting the caves is 5000 naira, which is quickly lowered to 2000 naira. A few casual bantery moments of haggling later, it appears we have hit the lower limit. I fling out a casual comment about ‘Onyeocha’ prices. They are not moved. I put forward the economic argument that charging a lower toll will attract more visitors, and therefore accrue greater revenue. Although persuaded of the logic of the argument, they are not moved to lower the price. I argue that they cannot be serious about tourism in the state. They do not budge a kobo. I call the whole thing ridiculous and a scam. They say that it is not their fault, all the money goes to the local chief to maintain the upkeep the area. This makes me think about the terrible entrance road leading to the cave. With the afternoon running out, I suggest that if I pay, I will also write out a receipt, that they sign it with their names, addresses and telephone numbers. They agree to this immediately. At which point, I surmise that the N2000 is fairly non-negotiable.

As we make our way down the other side of the steep hill, the two boys who will be our guides then request a further N1200 as tour guide fee. My host and I let out a collective cry of outrage and disgust, and turn back up the hill. Meanwhile, the third guy has wandered down to see what is going on. After some heated argument between them, the third guy, who seems a little older and has a curiously menacing air about him, motions for us to carry on down the hill, saying ‘we will settle it later.’ As I am quite keen to see the caves having come all this way, I turn around and we head back down the hill.

After a few more paces, we come to some concrete steps leading down into a ravine. The air quickly becomes humid under the forest canopy. The light is heavily shaded, with the sound of crickets reverberating in the stillness. Guide number one, Innocent, tells me he recently caught a hawk here. He wants me to start bidding a price. I offer him 500 naira, to which he laughs. ‘Aahh no. If only you know how I caught it!” he cries.

After a few more minutes descending the steep steps, we turn a corner, and there it is: Ogbunike cave. The mouth lies in shade under the heavy canopy above. I think of the word ‘maw.’ A solitary candle burns on a piece of rock at the entrance. The smell of incense is heavy in the air – strange to smell outside of the north-east. We walk down into the dankness of the cave. Even just inside, there is little light. Innocent points to a tiny hole to the right.

‘We go there.’

My first reaction is disbelief. It doesn’t look possible for a human being to fit inside such a tiny tube of space – no bigger than the size of a luxurious coffin. I look again. Perhaps on hands and knees, with the back kept low like a lizard? Innocent turns on his cell-phone torch light and enters. I take a deep breath and follow. The roof of the cave presses down on my back. I am wearing my finest Aquascutum chinos and jacket. Oh dear. I think of the dry cleaning bill. After a few metres, I call back to my host. I hear a muffled shout that he is not coming. Great. He has bottled it, and it is the two guides and I. The space is so tightly cramped there is no option of turning and heading back. A few more shuffles forward and there is a dip in the roof dimly suggesting itself ahead. The space is now so low I can barely shuffle – perhaps 20 inches or less of height. I feel a deeply embodied sense of claustrophobia overcome me. I stop and take a few calming intakes of breath. The air is dead, warm and damp. Innocent has disappeared ahead of me. I can see nothing – not even my hands in front of me. I shout out, and a light appears ahead – Innocent has pointed his phone back in my direction.

About five minutes of crawling later, we arrive in a hall-like space. I can hear the sound of bats fluttering wildly nearby. Innocent leads us towards an opening, and gestures towards the space beyond. We peer into this chamber-like space, and he shines his light. In the gloom, I can see thousands of bats whirring around. One flies past my head at speed. I am spooked.

We turn back into the main hall. Innocent now points his reedy torch light to the left.

‘This is where the crocodile lives.’

‘Whaaaat?’ I gulp.

Innocent explains calmly that the croc only likes to eat bat, so we will be quite safe. Even so, I quicken my step, and request that we find our way out as soon as possible. We carry on past the hall – the path turns to the left. Suddenly, I see candle-light ahead. A man appears, and says something in a sombre, tenor igbo. After he finishes his quiet words, Innocent translates that they are praying, and that we should just exercise patience. We then wait in the darkness.

It suddenly occurs to me that I have just argued with these two chaps, and being so far underground, the network is dead. Then, I think of whatever the man is doing nearby with persons unknown, and of the two strangers who are my guides, without whom I will not be able to find my way out, and the word okija quietly pushes itself to the front of my thoughts. Just then, Innocent turns off his mobile torchlight to save battery. We are in the lifeless warmth of complete darkness. The stream that bathes our feet trickles quickly by. I ask Innocent how long we will have to wait. He assures me it will be soon. I decide that keeping the conversation going is the best route, to stave off impending paranoia and the rapid flowering of nightmare scenarios narrating themselves in my head. They tell me they are students at the local polytechnic, that they want to go into public administration. Then we fall into silence, and the darkness overwhelms. The heat is sauna temperature or above. It is not good.

And then, the man appears with the candle again. He holds it carefully in front of him at the bottom of his stomach, cradled in his cupped hands. He says something, and we can go. Around the bend, there is a sense of daylight leaking into the space ahead. I sigh with relief. The smell of joss sticks again. We step outside and walk up to the first cave entrance. My host is there, with our driver. We walk down to the river below. The water is now a powerful stream, bubbling over a ledge. We meditate here quietly for a while, before walking back up to the cave entrance.

We see the third man walking down the steps, carrying something in a bag. Two women are waiting for him by the cave entrance. One is wearing white, with a tooth or bone as a pendant round her neck and feathers on a band around her head. The other is wearing a loose flowering dress. She sits languorously on the top of the steps leading down to the cave. As we walk back up through the ravine, I ask Innocent if the group below are Christians – I am sure they are not. He tells me they are a special kind of Christian. Upwards we walk - the humidity, the sound of the crickets, again. I have not eaten all day. The climb back up weakens me. I feel faint. Eventually, I reach the car, and the AC. We give the two boys twelve hundred naira, then leave. As we pass by the nearby houses, I look out at the people, and think of the clandestine activity that is taking place in the cave nearby. At that moment, it seems like a metaphor for Africa: nothing that you see is all that there is to be seen.


Chxta 10:45 am  

Strange, I haven't been to Ogbunike. I guess that will be corrected next time I'm home...

Bitchy 11:22 am  

How did you manage that? My goodness! I stopped myself from shutting the computer screen only when I worked out that for you to be blogging about this, means you escaped alive. Christ! I've been caving before, somewhere near the Forest of Dean. I cried all the way down and all the way back out.

And when you mentioned them the other day, I thought the Anambra caves would at least have some "primitive" artwork etched in their walls, or SOMEthing to make the trip worthwhile. Yeesh!

uknaija 11:27 am  

Wow, Jeremy, I felt claustrophobic reading this

ijebuman 1:22 pm  

An interesting entry, found the praying at the beginning of the meeting hilarious, i'm surprised they didn't have a praise worship as well.

God knows we need someone who will ban religious activity in official circles. You can't engage anyone in conversation without someone throwing in a 'Jesus' or an 'Allah Akbar'.

Nkem 1:42 pm  

What's the matter with you people? Jeremy is talking about my "manor"! I have uncles and aunties from Ogbunike, and my dad's from and lives in Awka. This is my neck of the woods. Don't worry, we don't eat people. Well, it depends on how much meat they have on their bodies to offer the gods...

Barb,  1:58 pm  

Gosh I remember going there as a school girl (many moons ago)...even then it was fairly tight and claustrophobic. Don't think I could squeeze in now...and one should remember that you're a skinny rake..

Jeremy - I don't think you've done a piece on Sungbo's Eredo..have you? I don't believe it has earnt world heritage site status yet, despite a submission in 1995.

So that's you're next task...please report back for me (Paul was not too impressed).

Felix 3:20 pm  

As a kid growing up in the east,tales of Ogbunike cave were common. We tot they're habitations of the gods, and the Biafran myth made it a lot more enchanting. But it's all annoying that such a relic of the past has not been converted into a cherished heritage.Where are all the business men in Anambra who aint caught up in the political madness of's your turn to shine ooo!

Anonymous,  3:47 pm  

just recently discovered your blog. WHat i most want to know is "What is your day job?". Surely not the publishing? And then you strike me as very PC, vegan etc, and yet, mein gott- Aquascutum!! I'd expect you to wear birkenstocks and organic cotton and use baking soda for toothpaste.... what took you to the East? what WORK in $ and cents terms (ie what did trip have to do with your daily bread?)? i understand the curiousity about Biafra. I read Chimamnda's book last summer and it opened my eye's to our homegrown holocaust. i was moved, enlightened etc, and have have many discussions since about biafra etc etc.. however, while i felt her book deeply and What I Learned changed me (somewhat)- that's it, i'm done with it, on to the next thing. i like that you went to experince the caves yourself, the way you took the time out to See for Yourself although i might have too, if i didnt have a day job.

Jumi 4:25 pm  

Caves? Count me out! I shudder at the thought of shopping at Winners, with all its tightly clustered rows of merchandise. Sometimes when I am not looking, it seem a bad idea that someone thought to set up a store with no leg room. What is a room without 'leg room?' Again! Caves? Count me out! Anambra sounds like a fun place, minus the cave of course. :)

Anonymous,  5:33 pm  

The account was good and entertaining, but to be frank - Anambra state doesn't sound a very attractive place, this begs the question what drew you there in the first place? I've been there (Anambra state that is) and it's not a place I'd go out of my way to visit as a tourist.

Anonymous,  5:43 pm  

'We meditate here' 'I feel faint'

Could you please correct the above to their proper forms?

You spelt them 'hear' and 'feint'. Cheers.

Jeremy 5:47 pm  

tis done. thanks last anonymous.

Akin 11:23 pm  

In the mighty name of Jesus, I pray for journey mercies as I read this piece and comment.

Grant me the courage to type and the fortitude to get my spelling right.

We thank you for the safe arrival of our brother Jeremy from his cave sojourn and pray that you continue to protect him to blog about these things that seem to be what they might really be.

Amen, Amen, Aaaaamen - Klunk!

wienna,  10:45 pm  

buahaaaa....just reading d part where u were going inside d cave sent chills down my spine. I'm glad u're ok though.
I can sense u're atheist, jeremiah.

Judy123 2:47 am  

Wienna, he is not an Atheist, he worships man made gods!

Anonymous,  9:07 am  

from what i can gather from reading this blog, jeremy is not an atheist - something of a buddhist, mixed Yoruba religion especially the demonic eshu, and a bit of sufi. he sounds like he is believes in everything except for the One and only - Father Lord and his son Jesus Christ our saviour.

chika,  12:21 am  

it seems like a metaphor for Africa: nothing that you see is all that there is to be seen.

Jeremy, deep. But isn't this a metaphor for life, for the world, really?

Blue 3:40 pm  

Lol! Jeremy and you were wondering if you were Naija? Only a naija man would be in the cave 'Heeee, abi dis na another Okija?! I don die!!'

Desola 12:46 pm  

There is something I still don't get about the comments i've read thus far. I found reading Jeremy's piece exciting and intriguing and he didn't seem to be in any danger...except of course there's something I missed and perhaps have to return to re-read.

Is this a notorious place? I don't get it.

Anonymous,  12:09 pm  

Ogbunike cave was were number of igbo people hid from slave traders/kidnappers and not the biafra war. The cave is older than the biafra war.

Anonymous,  12:13 pm  

...Other than state capitals, every other part of Nigeria looks very much like a tiny/shantty settlement;Everyone of those, would have to do a lot of catching up with everything standard we all know.


Omo-Obanta,  10:57 am  

Great write up. Just to say: idemmili is comparable to Yemoja in Yoruba folklore. Osun is confined to one river,(river Osun) while Yemoja is goddess of all water bodies. i once read that cuban rafters pray to Yemoja before venturing out.

ROLAND 11:18 am  

A trip to Benue State would be a far more rewarding sight seeing experience. Give it a thought next time. Roland Abah.

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